Biologists are trapping and shocking cutthroat trout to save them

FWP LogoBiologists believe hybridization threatens Montana’s unique westslope cutthroat trout population.

Fisheries Biologist Amber Steed with Fish, Wildlife and Parks Steed said the Flathead River system of northwest Montana has a large part of what remains of pure westslope cutthroat trout.

“The South Fork alone is a very unique resource with over half of what remains of interconnected, open migratory cutthroat trout habitat, and if you include the rest of the Flathead; we have over three quarters of what remains in the state,” Steed said cutthroat trout have been reduced to less than 10-percent of their historic range in the U-S.

FWP started working on the issue of rainbow trout cross-breeding with westslope cutthroat trout in the Flathead in 2000 on Abbot Creek, downstream from an old, private rainbow trout fish hatchery, and connected to the North Fork of the Flathead River. Steed said they’ve been seeing hybrid trout spreading north, up the North Fork of the Flathead River, into Glacier Park, along tributaries that have been strongholds for westslope cutthroat trout.

The initial attack included using a barrier, trapping fish, and electroshock fishing. The Environmental Assessment for this project expired and a new one is out for public review.

Steed says now they’re looking at 5 streams; Abbot, Sekokini, Rabe, Ivy, and Third Creeks in the mainstem and the North Fork of the Flathead River.

“The ultimate goal is to maintain as many relatively pure, genetically pure cutthroat trout populations in the Flathead drainage,” Steed said.

Tools biologists are using to stem the spread of hybrid trout in the newest Environmental Assessment includes trapping, electroshock fishing, and genetic sampling to gauge the effectiveness of their efforts.

The latest plan will cover the next 10 years. Public comment is due by March 8th with field work to start this spring.

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Closing the door on mining in the North Fork Flathead

The North Fork of the Flathead River borders Glacier National Park's western edge.

The North Fork of the Flathead River borders Glacier National Park’s western edge.

A Bill making its way through Congress would move a step closer to closing the door on mining in the North Fork Flathead. The North Fork Watershed Protection Act of 2013 was recently reintroduced by Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester.

The Act takes US Forest Service

land next to Glacier National Park off the table for future oil and gas development. Senator Baucus’s office said more than 80-percent of the leases held for the North Fork have been voluntarily retired by the lease holders. This bill doesn’t affect the remaining lease holders, but efforts are ongoing to encourage the retirement of the remaining leases.

Glacier Program Manager Michael Jamison with the National Parks Conservation Association said the North Fork Watershed Protection Act follows up an agreement reached between former Governor Brian Schweitzer and former British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell in a Memorandum  of Understanding (MOU) in 2010 to protect the cross-border watershed. The North Fork springs from headwaters north of the border in a coal-rich part of British Columbia.

The Canadians followed up on the M-O-U in 2011 with legislation that made the headwaters area off limits for industrial development.

Jamison said the conversation is continuing with Canadians to preserve the area. He called the area unique and remarkable as an example of an intact ecosystem with the same predator-prey relationships that existed when Europeans first arrived.

“There’s really nothing else like it,” Jamison said. He described the North Fork as ecological and economic headwaters.

“We have 30-years of trans-boundary history relative to the conservation of this place, and there’s a lot of science that’s been done, and there’s a lot of interest that’s been placed on it, with Glacier Park and Flathead Lake immediately downstream, there’s tremendous interest from both sides of the political aisle,” Jamison said.

Senator Baucus has been involved with the North Fork of the Flathead since he was first elected as a Representative in 1974. Baucus pushed for the Flathead River to be designated a Wild and Scenic River, which it was in 1976. In 2010 some of the oil and gas companies that voluntarily gave up their leases in the North Fork include ConocoPhilips, Chevron, and a subsidiary of Exxon / Mobile.